Lighten Up

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When Denise Shields took inventory of her clothes closet recently, she discovered that 20 years of working in the corporate world had turned her wardrobe black.

A black suit was her daytime uniform, a little black dress her solution for every evening out.

“Black fit in with the motif of the boardroom,” said the Laguna Niguel woman, who regularly meets with business executives as principal and founder of the Shields Resource Group, which helps companies improve their customer satisfaction. “I found myself gravitating toward black because it’s so easy to travel with and accessorize.”


It’s a common fashion affliction, addiction to black, which is popular because it is chic, sophisticated, versatile--and it takes 10 pounds off one’s figure. Wardrobe consultants who have seen the inside of many a client’s closet frequently discover racks filled with it.

“I have clients who . . . like it because it mixes and matches with everything,” said Gayla Totaro, an image consultant with Color Me Beautiful in Huntington Beach. “They don’t think of other colors as neutral.”

Black is almost always the primary color seen on Orange County’s social scene.

“You’ll see everything from black twin sweater sets to long dresses,” said Mary O’Hanian, owner of La Galleria, a women’s clothing boutique in Tustin. “It’s very slimming and elegant. A lot of people like it, myself included.”

Yet too much black can make for a dull wardrobe. Shields found herself fed up with black, so she sought the help of wardrobe consultant Mark-Alan Harmon, owner of MAH Clothing Co. in Fullerton. He showed her how to add splashes of color to her outfits and not sacrifice the professional look she needed.

“I didn’t want to be the lady in black; I’m not in mourning,” Shields explained.

Harmon lightened her wardrobe by steering her toward tops in tangerine, lime and other bright hues, and colorful accessories such as scarves and metallic shoes. For evening, he put her in a black velvet jacket with a brown metallic skirt adorned with black beading.

“I would have never done that before,” Shields said. “I tended to go with what’s

safe. I found you can still be professional and have more colors in your wardrobe. It makes you more interesting.”


Harmon has no grudge against black. His clients love black because it’s sophisticated.

“Among the fashion set, it’s the color of choice,” he said. “It hides every bump. It’s a very safe way to dress.”

Black was especially prevalent in the early ‘90s, when designers such as Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani used it to create understated, recession-era looks.

“People were into privacy,” Harmon said. “In black, you can hide out and blend in. Now there’s a feeling that you’re not expressing yourself or being personalized if you wear only black.”


With fall fast approaching, people’s wardrobes often fade to black--although charcoal gray is being touted as the season’s “in” color. Navy and taupe also are seen as new neutral shades.

But La Galleria already has narrow black skirts with side slits, strapless cocktail jackets, black coats with matching dresses and black pantsuits.

Look too, O’Hanian said, for black lace overlays over flesh-toned or lighter-colored fabrics and iridescent shades of black blended with burgundy or other hues this fall.


“You’re still in the black family, but it’s more interesting,” she said.

On the other hand, if you’re adding an investment piece to your wardrobe, solid black still may be the best choice.

“If you’re buying a wonderful cashmere shawl by Gucci for $695, get black because it does go with everything,” Harmon said.


But keep in mind that not all shades of black are equal. Some have a green, gray or brown tint, O’Hanian said. Designers also use slightly different shades of black with a subtle herringbone or shadow stripe to make the color their own and “keep us motivated” to buy their clothes, she says. When trying to mix one designer’s black jacket with a skirt from another line, she recommends checking the garments in the sunlight to make sure the colors match.

And if you’re still determined to wear all black, O’Hanian advised lightening the look with jewelry. Gold, silver, pewter, large pins and pearl chokers can keep black from draining the face of color.

“Black is flattering, and most people can wear it. But after a certain time in life it needs to be softened,” O’Hanian said. “A lot of women over 50 don’t want a lot of black around their face. It makes shadows. They need to soften with a fun scarf, jewelry or neckpieces.

“Nobody wants all black.”